For Brooklyn Real Estate Interests, Robert Cornegy Is a Premium Investment

Brooklyn borough president candidate rails against ‘political gentrification’ by socialist upstarts while lining his coffers with campaign contributions from high-end real estate developers.

Theodore Hamm Nov 16, 2020

Amid this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, several Black city council members spoke out against defunding the NYPD.

In doing so, Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, who represents Fort Greene-Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights, denounced what she called a “gentrification movement” that in her view is undermining the role of Black elected leaders. Meanwhile, Bed-Stuy City Councilman Robert Cornegy, Jr. invoked the specter of “political gentrification.”

Like its more commonly applied counterpart, political gentrification refers to a process in which newcomers with more resources displace longtime locals, whom Cornegy calls “legacy residents.” The racial connotations match those typically associated with neighborhood gentrification, with Cornegy and Cumbo inferring that wealthy white newcomers are now displacing Black political leadership.

A declared candidate in next year’s race for Brooklyn Borough President, Cornegy is likely to garner the support of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, which is currently run by Flatbush Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte. The outgoing borough president, Eric Adams—who is term-limited and viewed as a leading contender for mayor—created a controversy early this year when he advised gentrifying newcomers to “go back to Iowa.”

Framing the conflict as Black “legacy” residents vs. white gentrifiers is complicated by the recent successes of Jabari Brisport in the race to succeed State Senator Velmanette Montgomery and Phara Souffrant Forrest’s defeat of Assemblyman Walter Mosley. Both districts overlap with Cornegy and Cumbo’s city council districts—and both Brisport and Forest are Black candidates who grew up in Central Brooklyn.

Campaign finance disclosures further suggest that the displacement narrative is specious. Cornegy’s political fortunes, in fact, have been closely linked to the actual gentrification Bed-Stuy has experienced during the councilman’s two terms in office.

Between 2010 and 2018, rent prices in Bed-Stuy increased by 41 percent, according to a StreetEasy study. Photo: Dennis Fraevich/Flickr..

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First elected to the city council in 2013, Cornegy in the fall of 2017 vied for the role of council speaker, losing out to Corey Johnson. During that period, the councilman raked in donations from the city’s real estate and financial elite. That fundraising pattern has continued during his current run for borough president.

Cornegy’s tenure in office coincided with the development boom seen in Bed-Stuy over the past decade. That fact alone explained why real estate executives sought to forge close ties to him. But Cornegy’s role as Chair of the council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings perhaps lent further incentive.

As his bid for speaker took shape, Cornegy’s coffers began to fill. From October 2017 through the end of that year, the councilman took in over $40,000 from hedge funders and real estate executives. Many contributed $2,750, which at the time was the maximum donation allowed to a city councilperson.

Hedge funders John Petry of Sessa Capital and Paul T. Jones of Tudor Capital kicked off the October fundraising, each giving the max. Jones, founder of the Robin Hood Foundation, is a longtime bankroller of charter schools, including one in Cornegy’s district.

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Real estate players soon joined in, with max donations coming from Kasra Sanandaji of Apex Investments and a PAC called Taxpayers for an Affordable New York. The latter is controlled by the influential Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), and its officers included then-REBNY president John Banks and his successor, James Whelan.

At the end of October 2017, the Bawabeh brothers (David and Soly) chipped in with a pair of max contributions. Throughout Cornegy’s first term, the developer duo had opted to upgrade several of its properties in Cornegy’s district, including a commercial strip right across from the councilman’s neighborhood office on Fulton Street.

How the interests of the high-rolling donors correspond with the legacy residents Cornegy claims to defend are not exactly clear.

In their marketing brochure for the upscale Fulton strip, the Bawabehs called Bed-Stuy a “hot-spot for arts and culture in Brooklyn,” assuring prospective high-end retail tenants that “neighborhood gentrification is inevitable and moving quickly.”

In late 2017, an aspiring candidate for Congress assessed the fundraising pattern of pols like Cornegy. “When you are funded by luxury developers promoting gentrification in their marketing brochures,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez observed, “you are NOT going to be helping NY working families.”

That December, Cornegy also collected a combined $750 from executives at Omni New York including the company’s co-founder Eugene Schneur and his partner Mo Vaughan (who played for the Mets). In 2018, Schneur ranked fourth on the list of Worst Evictors (with 150) compiled by the NYC Right to Counsel Coalition. Last year, Schneur moved up a slot, albeit with 14 fewer evictions. Because many of the Central Brooklyn buildings owned by Omni are Section 8 housing, the extent to which the evictions directly spur gentrification is unclear.

As his current bid for borough president has taken shape, Cornegy has continued to receive large donations from developers, including nearly $1,500 from Omni execs. He has also collected four-figure contributions from Ofer Cohen, the CEO of TerraCRG Realty, whose website lists 13 large Brooklyn property sales that have totaled over $30 million in sales over the last few years; and Seth Weissman of Urban Standard Capital, whose numerous Brooklyn property investments include a boutique condominium project across from the Franklin Avenue subway stop in Crown Heights that is benefitting from its status as a Trump administration-designated Opportunity Zone.

Thus far, over $35,000 of the nearly $200,000 that Cornegy has raised for his 2021 run has come from real estate executives and hedge funders. How the interests of the high-rolling donors correspond with the legacy residents Cornegy claims to defend are not exactly clear.

But the DSA’s Brisport and Forrest showed that candidates can indeed win elections in Central Brooklyn with a large base of small donors while rejecting real estate money. Unlike in races for state offices, candidates for city offices also can gain matching funds of 8-1 up on $175 maximum from city residents, meaning that small donations can add up quickly. Cornegy, however, has chosen another option that allows for larger contributions (of up to $3,950 for borough president candidates) while matching smaller donations at 6-1.

In his fight against the gentrifiers, Cornegy evidently doesn’t want to shortchange his core supporters.

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